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Towson High student given go-ahead to perform 'Black Lives Matter' poem

Towson High principal says she never barred poem that touches on police brutality.

A Towson High School student emerged from a recent meeting with his principal believing he'd been barred from reciting a poem about his experiences as an African-American who fears the police.

Now the principal, Charlene DiMino, says she never issued such a ban and says she has told Marcus Shaw, 18, the president of his senior class, that he will be allowed to read the poem, "Believe Me," at the school's senior talent show Wednesday night.

DiMino told Shaw on Monday he had permission after more than 2,100 people signed an online petition on his behalf.

A classmate of Shaw's, Krystal Alexis, wrote and posted the petition online late last week after hearing Shaw's account of the meeting with DiMino.

"Allowing him to perform [the poem] will help others raise awareness of important social issues and create a path to talk about [them]," Alexis wrote in the petition, which included the latest version of Shaw's poem.

The poem, which was earlier published in the school's literary magazine, Colophon, extols the value of getting an education, especially for young African-American men growing up in a society that, the poem contends, is still marred by bigotry toward blacks.

It mentions the Black Lives Matter movement and expresses the view that there are police officers who "start riots instead of keeping the peace."

The poem, which is addressed to a nameless police officer, begins: "Officer, I'm begging you to believe/That never ever have I smoked weed/And please do not tell me that I have to leave/I need to stay in school and continue to read."

It goes on to mention Eric Garner, the unarmed black man who died in 2014 after several New York City police officers put him in a choke hold.

"Like Eric Garner/I cannot breathe/But I promise I will garner my responsibilities/I want to succeed," the poem continues.

Most who signed the petition were from Maryland, but some were from other states.

Many commenters framed the situation as a free-speech issue and called DiMino to task for attempting to prevent Shaw from enjoying his constitutional right to free speech.

"I implore you, please allow Marcus Shaw to present his poem at the senior showcase and … do not hide highly important information from your students on the grounds that it might be too controversial," wrote Cordelia Snow of Los Angeles, a Towson High School alumna.

Reached by telephone on Monday, Shaw said he was "extremely happy" he'd be allowed to perform the poem at the show, an optional event to be held at the school. But he continued to insist that DiMino did, in fact, tell him during their face-to-face meeting that he would not be allowed to present the poem.

"She specifically told me I would have to take out any reference to the police," Shaw says.

Shaw adds that DiMino told him during the conversation that she found the poem's comments on the police "offensive" – an interpretation she disputes.

DiMino told The Sun on Monday that her main concern about the poem was that an earlier principal had canceled the annual show in recent years after performers made comments about students that audience members found offensive, and she didn't want potential controversy to lead for calls to shut the show down again.

"I told him it was a concern that some people could find [the poem] offensive, or that they might believe that it's anti-police, and I expressed my concerns about that," DiMino said.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Washington, D.C.-based Student Press Legal Council, said efforts to prevent Shaw from performing the piece would have entered terrain familiar to anyone familiar with the issue of student speech.

In the landmark 1968 case Tinker v. Des Moines, the United States Supreme Court famously ruled that "it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," in the words of Justice Abe Fortas, who wrote the majority opinion

The court has since refined that view, Goldstein said, but a public school may still only censor a student speech if the school can "present specific, articulable evidence that it's more likely than not that the speech will lead to an event that prevents the operation of your school."

"That would not have been the case in this situation," he added. "Even if it hurts some people's feelings, you're allowed to hate cops."

Shaw, an enrollee in the school's Law and Public Policy magnet program and a mentor for at-risk youth, says he has decided to make edits to the poem for Wednesday's performance. He plans to remove the word "weed" – a reference to marijuana – and change the words "shooting a brother" to "hurting a brother."

DiMino says she is "proud" of Shaw and believes "he should be able to present his views."

The all-senior show is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Towson High School.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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